Shadows of Keron Episodes 18-19: Vengeance of the Branded Devils

An unusually long session this week, in fact two sessions back to back. In the first one, the party polished off Wolves in the Borderlands, although they made another enemy in the form of a Caled druid. In the second, they reached Gis, unloaded the Holy Handkerchief of St Veronica for laundering, and were then summoned by the Ninth of Twelve, one of Gis’ master alchemists, who sent them on a mission into Zandor, allowing me to run the introductory scenario in the setting book, which might have been tailor-made for Athienne and Garstrewt.

No spoilers, but here’s pretty much what I said after they had set a trap for some bandits in a small village… You know the village I’m talking about, Umberto…  Smile

“So, if I understand you correctly, this is your plan…”

“The Warforged is concealed in shrubbery outside this hut, holding on to a rope you have buried in the dirt; as the bandits ride into the village, you will pull the rope taut, unhorsing the leaders. Garstrewt has moistened the same area with oil and is hiding in the hut opposite with his McGyvered catapult, ready to launch a burning cloth or something into the oil. Abishag has loaded his Potion of Blast, which he bought in Gis, into a sling and will fire it at the bandits while they are getting up and sorting themselves out. Athienne is standing here, where everyone is inside her Command radius.”

“By the way, you do realise that will have no effect whatsoever, as the rest of the party refuse to acknowledge her as leader. Yes? Doing it anyway? Fine.”

“Meanwhile, to entice the bandits into the village through that opening, Alihulk and Peter Perfect are displaying themselves doing manly things to show what good slaves they would make. Specifically, they are sitting on the pile of cabbage you brought to the village, drinking beer.”

What could possibly go wrong? Not much, as it happened. They even took prisoners, although The Warforged and Alihulk interpret their Bloodthirsty hindrance to mean not only can they not take prisoners, but nobody else in the party can, either; so the prisoners lasted about 90 seconds, that being how long Alihulk’s player (who has medical training) advised someone would take to bleed to death through a severed brachial artery. As he said later, “Cutting people’s arms off is not a viable interrogation technique.” As The Warforged replied, “I’m not trying to interrogate them.”

It astonishes me sometimes what the party are vicariously capable of; but when some years ago I researched what their actions would really mean and described it to them in detail, it was not much fun for anyone, so now I just drive on.

If only the party would acknowledge a leader, he or she could order them not to do things like that; but they won’t. See previous comments re: Number of Scoobies in party… Fortunately, Athienne has good Tracking skills and a background allowing her to use Common Knowledge to figure out some of what’s going on. Meanwhile, the posse has saddled up and is riding out after the bandits, following their tracks back to wherever they came from.

Review: Faith & Demons–The Rising

This Savage Worlds plot point setting is a 294 page book (PDF, in my case) from Mystical Throne Entertainment, written by Aaron T Huss. You definitely need the Savage Worlds core rules to use it as intended, and the Fantasy Companion is useful, though not essential.

For quite a few years now, I’ve been meaning to set up a campaign in and around the Byzantine Empire during the Dark Ages, but never quite managed to do the work; since that’s exactly what Faith and Demons: The Rising is, I couldn’t resist.

CONTENT

A Skald’s Tale (6 pages)

This is the normal in-character short story to introduce the setting. ‘Nuff said.

Introduction (11 pages)

The fall of Rome casts a long shadow in Western society, and especially in RPGs. How many games can you think of that use (as WotC puts it) a "points of light setting"?  One where the PCs’ home is struggling to rebuild after the fall of a previous mighty empire? Damn’ near all of ’em, and this one is no exception.

The setting is based on 10th-11th century eastern europe, when cultures still clashed over the remains of the Roman Empire. It’s thus set in the Dark Ages, rather than the much more popular High Middle Ages (15th century with no printing press or gunpowder, although both of those limitations have weakened over the last 20 years).

Unusually, the book is not afraid to name names and use real-world religions. More on this later, but it’s unusual for a publisher to risk this. I note that Islam and Judaism are absent, however; maybe in a later supplement.

The "common tongue" is also treated in an unusual, and more realistic, way than in most RPGs; it refers only to the party, not to the setting as a whole. The group picks an historical language – Latin, Greek, or whatever – and from then on, all PCs speak it. However, NPCs are under no obligation to do so.

The remainder of this section discusses suitable character archetypes. These include the ubiquitous fighter, the feudal lord, the monk (the scholarly one, not the kung fu master), the thief, the woodsman (ranger-type, for D&D players – usually some sort of nomad), and the spellcaster (various types, some religious and some not so much). The character’s home culture can be thought of as applying a trapping to his archetype, especially if he is a fighter or a lord.

Character Creation (34 pages)

This follows normal Savage Worlds practice for the most part, so I’ll concentrate on the differences.

The one that stands out to me is the use of Common Knowledge, which the game splits into a couple of dozen subskills, which would correspond to languages, religious knowledge or Area Knowledge in other games, and splits each of those subskills into levels – Unfamiliar (you can’t roll), Familiar (rolls are at -2), Informed (roll with no modifiers), and Expert (roll at +2). That sounds complex, but actually it just formalises the core rulebook statements on Common Knowledge. Mechanically, it allows the game to focus on the impact of language, religion and nationality without tying up most of a PC’s initial skill points to do so; but it does so at the cost of increased complexity, as in effect players now need to track half a dozen extra CK skills – the ones granted by their nationality, and half their Spirit die of free choices.

Characters are assumed to be illiterate, and only Experts in a language can read or write it. So, it’s possible – likely, even – that your PC may be literate in some languages, but not in others.

Before choosing Hindrances and Edges, each character needs to specify a nationality and religion. This grants certain edges or skills free, balanced by mandatory hindrances which don’t count against the character’s limit, and also defines which CK specialisations he or she has. Each of the eight major nations of the setting is listed, with an historical overview, specified CK options for their nation and language (and generally a choice of several religions), a racial minor hindrance, a couple of free skills at d6, a paragraph on each of the main types of warrior fielded by that nation, and a list of names – very helpful if you suddenly need a name for a Croatian barmaid, for example.

Characters effectively start with 3-4 advances from their nation of birth, largely due to the free skills. From discussions on the SW forum, I suspect this is because with only humans available as a race, the designer felt the need to help players differentiate their characters more easily. This is a solution to a problem I have never encountered, and don’t expect to encounter in future, so I might well force people to buy their "free" skills and edges with their starting points. That said, SW’s power curve is flat compared to other games, and PC advancement doesn’t change play dramatically, so it wouldn’t hurt if I didn’t.

So far, I haven’t worked out if the minor national hindrance counts against the normal complement of two such or not. I can’t see it mattering much either way, so long as I’m consistent.

Edges (26 pages)

There’s the usual slew of new edges (nearly a hundred of ’em in fact). Interestingly, Detect Trap and Disable Trap are edges, adjusting your Notice and Lockpicking skills, rather than subsumed in a character’s skills as is the SW norm.

Quite a few of the edges exist to bend the character in directions that his nation was famous for historically; this is especially true of the combat edges which reflect historical tactics. I haven’t used the rules enough to know how well this works yet, but I do applaud the effort.

Arcane Backgrounds (41 pages)

The standard Arcane Backgrounds of Magic and Miracles are supplemented by new ones: Druidic Magic, Necromancy, Rune Magic, and Shamanism. Weird Science, Super Powers and several ABs from the Fantasy Companion are forbidden in this setting. Each gets its own section, listing the relevant skill, initial power points and powers known, the list of available powers, a discussion of how it works, backlash rules and trappings.

The chapter shows how long it takes a character to learn a new power – he must return to his temple, school or master to do so, then spend between a day (for Novice powers) and 7-12 months (for Legendary powers) in study, prayer, meditation or whatever. I like this, and if I were paying any attention to the campaign timeline in Shadows of Keron, I would adopt it forthwith.

There are 10 new powers, of which Resurrection ("Raise Dead") drew my attention the most – it’s an option that SW often overlooks, I suppose because PCs don’t actually die that often.

The main religions for the major nations are each presented with a description of their purpose, aspects (key words for their core beliefs, such as "generosity"), duties (what believers are expected to do), sins (what they are expected not to do), a timeline from their founding up to the time frame of the setting, and main gods or other figures. The religions covered are Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Germanic Paganism, Shinto, and Slavic Paganism.

Equipment (23 pages)

As I said above, this is a Dark Ages setting. That means no plate armour or greatswords, for a start.

As usual in RPGs, the equipment list has a heavy bias towards armour and weapons. I was reminded as I read through this of 1st Edition AD&D, which had what felt like dozens of different polearms, including the dreaded Bohemian Ear-Spoon. Suffice to say that each nation has its own version of the shortsword, longsword, etc with its own name and subtle differences (thankfully, most of these are descriptive chrome rather than mechanical changes).

Weapons (but not armour) can also be enchanted by Runesmiths, giving them bonuses up to +5 – the weapons tables show each possibility with its stats and cost worked out.

Torso armour, however, can be layered, as was commonly done in real life in the period – this is simple enough, there are some types of armour that can be worn underneath others, and in this case both the Toughness increases and the weight are cumulative.

There are also magical implements – these are not covered in the same detail, with whether the implement is a wand, ring, or whatever being treated as a trapping. These give the user bonuses on powers which do damage directly, such as bolt, but not on other spells such as healing. This is a fast, easy system of magic items and I like it.

Finally, we have optional rules to reflect the change in item cost caused by it being local or made a long way off.

This is the last section players can read; everything from here on is GM-only territory.

Game Master’s Eyes Only and Setting (5 pages)

This starts by explaining that the setting and campaign are an alternate history Dark Ages with added gothic fantasy, and what that means.

The premise of the setting is that undead and demons are growing in power, and intent on destroying the world, humanity, and its gods. Those feudal lords who have an inkling of what is going on are recruiting stout-hearted adventurers to stop it. However, this is happening during a time of continual border clashes between cultures and political intrigue, which complicates matters.

Nations Overview (18 pages)

Eight nations are examined in detail; Anglo-Saxon, Bulgaria, Byzantium, Croatia, Hungary, Japan, Kievan Rus and Scandinavia. I was expecting six of those, but the Anglo-Saxons are a little unexpected, and Japan completely so. GM information expands on that given in the character creation chapter with more history, climate, linguistics and other snippets of data.

Following this, although not really a separate chapter, is a list of common diseases of the period and their game effects, from Cholera to Typhoid; and then a selection of adventure seeds, with a campaign framework intended to tie them together.

Bestiary and New Bestiary (50 pages)

Two separate chapters, these, but merged for simplicity of review. The Bestiary first notes that things not suiting the setting should be avoided – Constructs, for example. It then advises what creatures from SW and the Fantasy Companion do, and do not, fit the setting.

The New Bestiary is, as you’d expect, new monsters. As usual for SW settings, these include human commoners and soldiers as well as supernatural beings, which include various angels and demons, undead, and other creatures common to the legends of the relevant time and nations.

Plot Points (15 pages)

The book’s plot point campaign is a hub-and-spoke one centred on Kiev; the PCs live there, come out to do stuff, then trot home for a slap-up feed and lashings of ginger beer. It takes them from Novice to Heroic, through ten plot points and up to 16 Savage Tales.

Travel is time-consuming and difficult, as it was historically. However, the PCs’ lord (probably an NPC, but possibly one of the characters) provides them with horses or boats; it’s in his interest that they complete their missions quickly. This is not just because he wants it done, but because the longer you are on the road, the more rolls you make on the Travelling Events table and its associated random encounter tables (which vary by PC Rank and terrain type); and sooner or later one of them will kill you, or at least delay you.

Campaign (33 pages)

The overview and random encounters dispensed with, we now move on to the actual campaign. There are three adventures each at Novice, Seasoned and Veteran Ranks, and a final one at Heroic. The characters work through these to increase their lord’s wealth and power, weaken the forces of Chaos, and eventually face them in a climactic battle for the fate of the Earth. The book talks about what the characters could do next, whether they succeeded or failed; but in my opinion, the story arc is dramatically complete at that point, and one would be better off moving on.

Savage Tales (17 pages)

Here we have additional adventures, shorter and less fleshed-out than the plot points perhaps, but longer and more detailed than the adventure seeds we saw earlier. There are 6 aimed at Novices, 5 for Seasoned PCs, and 5 for Veterans. Including the plot point adventures and the free teaser adventure in the web supplement, you have 27 scenarios in all, or about a year’s play for my group.

The book finishes with a list of recommended reading and a character sheet.

FORMAT

The PDF has been designed for use on ereaders; this is most obvious in the layout, which has a single column rather than the more fashionable two columns side by side. It’s very printer friendly, with plain black text on a plain white background, and (apart from the colour covers) only the odd black and white illustration every few pages.

Full marks for format, and especially having thought about reading it on something like an iPad or Kindle. Not that I’m biased or anything.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

The sequence of sections confused me in a couple of places; the equipment chapter, and the campaign framework in the nations overview, which I would have put after the plot point campaign. Nothing that reading things a couple of times couldn’t clear up, but I would have understood things more easily in a different sequence.

The inclusion of Japanese characters, creatures and adventures was jarring for me. I couldn’t see a logical reason for it, and suspect they are there purely because gamers love samurai. As the book is called Faith & Demons: The Rising, I assume there will be other books in the Faith & Demons line; I feel Japan should have been kept for another book, focused on the Far East.

CONCLUSIONS

The basic premises of Faith & Demons: The Rising are tried and true; saving the world from rising chaos, and successor states squabbling over the loot of a fallen empire. What is unusual is the explicit use of real-world events, organisations and religion; not only is this appropriate for the setting, but the rich tapestry of real history gives a sense of depth and continuity otherwise difficult to achieve.

My instinct is that this started out as a D&D campaign, and has been converted to SW; it doesn’t bother me, and is not necessarily a bad thing if true, but there are all sorts of little hints that suggest the author is well-versed in some edition of D&D. Probably 1st Edition, if I had to guess.

It’s well-researched, carefully thought out, and confusingly laid out in places. As a source book for Dark Ages Savage Worlds games, very good. As a source of interesting ideas to cannibalise, not bad at all. As a plot point campaign, while I can see myself running it, I don’t feel the urge to drop everything and start on it right away that would gain it the 5 out of 5 rating.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

Shadows of Keron, Episode 17 – Wolves in the Borderlands

After a long hiatus over the summer, the campaign is restarting; the regular Saturday session last weekend found Our Heroes in the Borderlands, en route to Gis.

Wolves in the Borderlands is the scenario that persuaded me to buy Beasts & Barbarians in the first place, so it’s special for me. It’s very reminiscent of Conan’s adventures, and in particular Beyond the Black River.

People turned up late, and it took a while for the group to shake down (mostly because the first couple to arrive started playing Trine with me while we were waiting, and we got a bit carried away with it), but we eventually got started, and they pursued a group of Caled kidnappers into the Black Forest. A certain amount of violence ensued, followed by a hasty escape through the rain, and the party are now holed up overnight under a large oak tree. Garstrewt is cautiously sipping the stagnant green water caught in the branches, and The Warforged has declared an intent to chop it to pieces, because he has convinced himself their main enemy for this session is hidden in a cave beneath it. Everyone is covered in mud, and Garstrewt is also covered in decayed human remains from  an earlier explosion.

I have given up keeping track of the state of the Holy Handkerchief, which also has those substances smeared on it from a surprisingly successful Greater Healing attempt. Suffice to say that a 40 degree delicate wash is not going to cut it.

Reflections on Campaign Pacing

The rate of progress is somewhat slower than I expected; now that I have a longer baseline, I can see that we’re actually averaging just over two sessions per month rather than the three I expected earlier; they will reach Gis in a couple of months, and I still haven’t figured out what I’m going to do with them there. Maybe I should just gloss over it and take them straight to Jalizar, which would be a good place to settle them down for a while.

Reflections on Group Makeup

If you haven’t read Lise Mendel’s piece on Designing Your Team the Scooby Way, do so now. I’ll wait.

Finished? Good.

When I look at the group, I think we have the following:

  • Fred: Peter Perfect the Paladin.
  • Daphne: Athienne, Nessime.
  • Velma: The Warforged (in combat).
  • Shaggy: Abishag, Alihulk, Borg, Gutz.
  • Scooby: Buster, Garstrewt, The Warforged (most of the time).

The overall team mix varies from session to session, depending on who turns up. The usual core team is Daphne, Shaggy and Velma-Scooby; sometimes we get another Daphne and another Scooby, and less often more Scoobies and a Fred. As you’d expect from that and Lise’s analysis, the group goes so far off-piste in the average session that it’s hard to tell where the piste was originally, which means there isn’t much point me spending a lot of time making them a nice, clean piste.

Most of the last session was taken up with Garstrewt trying to persuade one of the NPCs that he had built The Warforged, and the subsequent argument between their players. For the next campaign, I must make a more forthright statement about the tone I’m aiming for; maybe that will make a difference. I should also deprecate gnomes and warforged in any subsequent fantasy game.

But: It’s just a game. As long as everyone’s having fun, you’re doing it right.

Review – 5150: New Beginnings

In a Nutshell: Science-fiction skirmish wargaming/RPG hybrid (or "immersion game" as THW calls it), 176 page PDF, $20 at time of writing. Superb for solo or co-operative play.

And the name? "5150" is the section of the New Hope City penal code under which your characters are most likely to be arrested. Nice touch, that.

ON A SOAPBOX

Before I go on, if you haven’t tried a THW game before, you need to understand something about the reaction system, which replaces the more traditional turn sequence.

Let’s consider a typical Warhammer 40,000 game between myself (Tau) and my son (Blood Angels). It goes like this: The Death Company use their jetpacks to move in close, hose the Fire Warriors down with bolter fire, then charge into close combat and hack them to pieces with chainswords. Meanwhile, the Tau are standing around like lemons, patiently waiting for their turn and wondering if any of them will live to see it. The basic turn sequence for tabletop wargames hasn’t changed much since H G Wells codified it in Little Wars, almost exactly a century ago.

Now, under a THW rules set, it would go more like this: The Death Company starts to move, coming into view and triggering a chain of reaction tests. The Tau see them coming and open fire on them before they finish moving. Some are injured or killed, and the rest might carry on, duck back into cover, or even retire from combat. Those who carry on will return fire, with like effects on the Tau. Once you’re used to the system, it flows much more quickly than W40K; a key factor is that you can react to what I’m doing while I’m still trying to do it, just like in real life, and as a bonus this means neither of us spends half the game doing nothing but wait for the other to finish his turn.

Another key factor is that only the Star – your personal avatar on the tabletop – has free will; the rest of your troops move entirely as reaction tests dictate, which makes it very easy to play in solo or co-op modes, although it works just fine head-to-head as well.

CONTENTS

You will see quite a bit more of this system in detailed encounter writeups, so I’ll limit myself to the the new, the different and the deprecated here. The game itself is about your Star and his or her Grunts (NPCs) trying to make a living in New Hope City, capital of the planet New Hope. You can play isolated street fights, or join these encounters together into a campaign. Most weapons are late 20th or early 21st century items, but there are 5 alien races and a range of cybernetic enhancements.

What’s New?

  • Hit location. I’m not normally a fan of hit location as it slows down play, but because it replaces the earlier die roll against weapon Impact to determine wound type, it’s not as bad as it could be.
  • Bleeder. This is a wound status slightly better than Out Of the Fight, but still dangerous. The difference between the two is that you can try to heal a Bleeder during an encounter, whereas someone OOF won’t heal until the next session, if then.
  • Buildings. Earlier THW offerings had very simple rules for combat in buildings, essentially treating them as areas of difficult terrain and cover. The rules in NB are those available on the THW website for a while as a web supplement; they break up buildings into areas, with more attention paid to doors and windows. The main effect of this I’ve noticed so far is that it’s now easier to pin down the opposition by using a well-placed figure to command the hallway. There are 10 or so sample layouts for common buildings.
  • A very simple economic system, in which anything you might want, from a communicator to a spaceship, is called an "Item". You start with 15-20 Items, and can get more in play – you can lose them too, either by theft from your home base, or by using them to pay fines. The guiding principle is that shooting things is fun, keeping track of equipment and funds is boring. Music to my ears.
  • Police encounters. While you and the opposition are merrily blasting away at each other, the police might well roll up to arrest you both. This may lead to familiarity with other new rules about court cases and prison breaks. Even if you escape, the police will remember your criminal acts and will keep trying to arrest you until your case is tried.
  • Cybertech enhancements. Only available to humans ("Basics"), make you better at some things but worse at others, notably interpersonal skills.
  • Media crews (optional; the Star and his allies may be a media crew looking for news); these are of course related to the Fame or Notoriety of the Star, which in turn influences his chance of being hired to do a job.

What’s Different?

  • The rules are generally tightened up, easier to understand, yet expanded, especially compared to the last edition of 5150 I bought. The types and outcomes of reaction tests have been tweaked, but that happens with every new THW game, and is the main way in which differences between troop types are reflected in the game.
  • This new offering has more powerful Stars, slightly more complex combat, and streamlined skills (LTL had dozens, too many for me, while 5150: NB has only four). Of course, many THW offerings have no skills at all – All Things Zombie, for example.
  • Characters, at least Stars, are a little more complex than usual for THW, with specific professions; but given this side of 5150 is slanted towards roleplaying, that is understandable. They still pass the acid test of fitting comfortably on a 3" x 5" index card.
  • Medical attention now depends on both the skill of the healer and the Rep of the patient, not just one person’s Rep.
  • New Hope City is split into a range of areas, with different encounters based on where you are and what time of day it is. Previous THW products I’ve used treated cities as homogenous.
  • Character advancement has a minor change, but one that I like; your Rep or skills can now only drop if you fail to achieve your objective in an encounter. Previously, I lost a lot of Rep and other stats from my Stars even if they were winning, which I really did not like; and once at Rep 5, your chances of increasing or decreasing a stat were the same, so over time Stars would stabilise at Rep 5. In fact, this has been the biggest turn-off for me in THW’s offerings to date. Maybe I’ve been getting it wrong all along? If so, it was better explained this time.
  • PEFs no longer have randomly-determined Rep; they are all Rep 4. This will speed things up, I think.
  • There’s a subtle but useful change to the QRS sheets; the reference sheet for each race or class now has a small table for dicing up randomly-encountered beings of that type, which reduces the amount of flipping back and forth through the rulebook in mid-game.
  • The biggest change, though, is the In Sight test, which is now Rep d6 counting successes (rolls of 1-3) rather than rolling 2d6 vs Rep. On the plus side, this makes it easier to work out who shoots next; on the minus side, it’s more dice to roll and slightly slower in play.

What’s Missing?

Bugs, military units, and the rules for deciding who is at war with whom. These are all part of 5150: Star Army, the companion game covering platoon-level military actions. Ed Teixeira, the boss of THW, says that he took this step because he noticed his customers were divided between those who wanted full-on military games (Starship Troopers) and those who wanted to play a small gang of scoundrels on the make (Firefly), and wanted to give each group the kind of game they want to play.

FORMAT

Like all THW games, this has a very clear and simple layout, and I for one like it like that. Colour is limited to the covers, but there are small black and white CGI-style illustrations, and diagrams to illustrate points of the rules, every page or two.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

There’s a long and noble tradition in SF of using weapons you can see on the news every day; from H Beam Piper’s Future History stories, still using smokeless powder well into the 5th millennium, to the Winchester ’73s and Steyr AUGs in Firefly; but given the space given over to cybertech enhancements and alien races, a few more advanced weapons would have been welcome. I can easily handwave this, saying that a Big Ass Pistol is really a Heavy Blaster Pistol, or that law on New Hope forbids any lethal weapon developed later than the 1970s; but it still feels a bit of a let-down. I already want Star Army for the bugs, and judging by the snippets in the SA-NB conversion rules, SA has more ray guns in it.

CONCLUSIONS

I’m a fan of THW’s products, as you may have noticed, and I’m looking forward to playing the kind of SF adventures I want to play using the Chain Reaction system, rather than trying to cobble together bits of, errm, three different games at last count into something that will do the job. I’m even tempted to move the Arioniad out of Savage Worlds and into 5150 permanently; but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, let’s play it for a while first.

You could also easily use these rules for modern gang warfare, with or without cops; adventures in the style of Cyberpunk or Shadowrun; or any SF skirmish that doesn’t rely on powered armour and energy weapons. You need to do some extra work if you want to play full-on military conflict (that’s what 5150: Star Army is for), or adventure outside the city.

Playing a THW game feels more like “being there” than any other tabletop games I know, which intrigues me given the relative simplicity of the rules. This one is no exception.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.